The Miri­am and Ira D. Wal­lach Divi­sion of Art, Prints and Pho­tographs: Pho­tog­ra­phy Col­lec­tion, The New York Pub­lic Library. Ire­na Klep­fisz. Brook­lyn, NY.” New York Pub­lic Library Dig­i­tal Collections.

How does bilin­gual­ism serve or shape a work of art — and what effect might it have on our rela­tion­ship to lan­guage, to each oth­er? In this inti­mate con­ver­sa­tion with Julie R. Ensz­er, Jew­ish les­bian poet Ire­na Klep­fisz tries her hand at answer­ing these and oth­er questions.

Julie R. Ensz­er: Ire­na, I am so thrilled about Her Birth and Lat­er Years: New and Col­lect­ed Poems, 1971 – 2021. It’s been a num­ber of years since your last pub­lished poet­ry col­lec­tion. Tell me how this one came into being.

Ire­na Klep­fisz: Well, Julie, you’re more respon­si­ble than any­one else. For a long time and a vari­ety of rea­sons, I had stopped try­ing to pub­lish poet­ry but did con­tin­ue writ­ing it. About two years ago, I reviewed what I’d writ­ten and put togeth­er a man­u­script. You read it and sug­gest­ed I send it to Wes­leyan, who said it was too short. So I expand­ed it into a col­lec­tion of my com­plete poems begin­ning in 1971.

JRE: One of the things that daz­zles me about this book is how many of the new poems respond to ear­li­er ones, rather than sim­ply adding to the nar­ra­tive of your life or reflect­ing on your father’s his­to­ry in Poland. I think of the poem Grief changes and doesn’t.” Do you see your work as part of one longer, extend­ed con­ver­sa­tion? Or do you approach your poems more singularly?

IK: When I start a new piece, I’m total­ly focused on it and the present moment. I nev­er think about whether I’ve writ­ten about this sub­ject before. I have no sense of extend­ing or ampli­fy­ing an ear­li­er theme. To me, it’s fresh, with no con­scious­ness of pre­vi­ous poems on that sub­ject. Of course, when I was proof­ing the final man­u­script for Her Birth, I rec­og­nized recur­ring top­ics — my father, for exam­ple. I think many ear­ly poems are sat­u­rat­ed with grief — grief for a lost par­ent and fam­i­ly, grief for a lost way of life. I think that grief nev­er goes away com­plete­ly. But the ill­ness­es and deaths of Judy and my moth­er and then most recent­ly of old friends like Elana Dyke­wom­on and Mered­ith Tax — those formed a new kind of grief.

JRE: The ded­i­ca­tions to Bash­ert” may be your most famous lines of poet­ry — anthol­o­gized, quot­ed, on a video on the inter­net, and as a meme in social media. Will you talk a bit about its origin?

IK: The whole auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal prose poem Bash­ert” (around fif­teen pages) first appeared in Sin­is­ter Wis­dom (1982), which at the time was edit­ed by Michelle Cliff and Adri­enne Rich. The open­ing parts — a ded­i­ca­tion to those who died and those who sur­vived — have become well-known and incor­po­rat­ed into var­i­ous Jew­ish rit­u­als and Holo­caust com­mem­o­ra­tions. But per­haps because it was first pub­lished in a les­bian mag­a­zine in 1982, I ini­tial­ly received many requests from part­ners and friends of gay men who had died of AIDS for per­mis­sion to read it at their funer­als and memo­ri­als. I think its Jew­ish res­o­nance took longer to be recognized.

Some­times peo­ple mis­take the ded­i­ca­tions for the entire poem. Through Bash­ert,” I was try­ing to under­stand four crit­i­cal moments in my life, begin­ning in 1944 in Poland dur­ing the war and end­ing in 1981 in upstate New York. I want­ed to under­stand how I moved from being a hid­den child, to an immi­grant child sur­vivor, to a white teacher, and to sim­ply a Jew. It took a very long time to unfold. As I remem­ber it, I wrote the ded­i­ca­tions after all four sec­tions were fin­ished. The lists for both ded­i­ca­tions were quite long and took some time to pare down.

At the time that I wrote Bash­ert,” women were exper­i­ment­ing with dif­fer­ent styles. I remem­ber when I was work­ing on Con­di­tions, we often did­n’t know how to cat­e­go­rize pieces that were sub­mit­ted, couldn’t iden­ti­fy their genre. Read­ing works like Judy Grahn’s Com­mon Woman Poems” and Edward the Dyke” was eye-open­ing and very free­ing. They break away from tra­di­tion­al norms. Bash­ert” was a poet­ic exper­i­ment. I want­ed to see how far I could push prose into poet­ry or poet­ry into prose. The last sec­tion is the only one with any kind of rhythm that one could label tra­di­tion­al­ly” poet­ic. Still, Bash­ert” is a poem and was eas­i­ly accept­ed by female readers.

JRE: And now Bash­ert” has a teach­ing guide through the Nation­al Yid­dish Book Cen­ter and a video!

When I start a new piece, I’m total­ly focused on it and the present moment. I nev­er think about whether I’ve writ­ten about this sub­ject before.

JRE: In your acknowl­edge­ments, you cred­it Glo­ria Anzaldúa for encour­ag­ing you to think about the pos­si­bil­i­ties of bilin­gual poet­ry.” Anzaldúa, now of blessed mem­o­ry, con­tributed so much, blend­ing Span­ish and Eng­lish in her writ­ing, explor­ing hybridi­ties, mix­ing genre, and con­tribut­ing to what schol­ars now call autothe­o­ry, where crit­i­cal analy­sis emerges from self-exam­i­na­tion. Can you say more about Anzaldúa’s influ­ence on you?

IK: Glo­ria Anzaldúa and I first met in the ear­ly eight­ies, when we were teach­ing three-week-long wom­en’s writ­ing work­shops at UC San­ta Cruz and shar­ing a suite. We knew each oth­er’s work from the move­ment” and Con­di­tions mag­a­zine, but until that first sum­mer, we’d nev­er actu­al­ly met. It evolved into a won­der­ful exchange.

Here she was, a Chi­cana dyke from Texas root­ed in Span­ish, and here I was, a Jew­ish dyke and immi­grant root­ed in Eng­lish. Both of us were oth­ered” by the main­stream cul­ture and our own minor­i­ty com­mu­ni­ties. We did a few read­ings togeth­er and were amused by peo­ple’s assump­tions. Most, for exam­ple, assumed Glo­ria was the immi­grant (she spoke with a Span­ish accent) and I the Amer­i­can-born (heavy Bronx accent). I remem­ber that once, some­one tried to ask Glo­ria, very del­i­cate­ly, how long her peo­ple” had been in this coun­try. With­out miss­ing a beat, Glo­ria said: Oh, about four hun­dred years.

Any­way, we talked about our upbring­ings, our rela­tion­ships to oth­er Lati­nas and Jews and, even­tu­al­ly, oth­er lan­guages. I remem­ber argu­ing with Glo­ria about her refusal to trans­late Span­ish so that parts of her writ­ing remained inac­ces­si­ble to non-Span­ish speak­ing peo­ple like me. But she would­n’t back down. At some point I men­tioned that the com­mu­ni­ty in which I was raised spoke most­ly Yid­dish, that my moth­er insist­ed I attend Yid­dish shuls every after­noon and, lat­er, mitl­shul (high school) on week­ends. Also, I had done post­grad­u­ate work in Yid­dish lan­guage and cul­ture at YIVO and had even taught a num­ber of sum­mer Yid­dish lan­guage cours­es at Columbia.

Glo­ria found all this incred­i­bly weird. And when I start­ed to think about it, I saw it as odd, too. Bare­ly any Yid­dish had entered my poet­ry. In one ear­ly poem, I’d used the word rebetsin (rab­bi’s wife), and of course there was Bash­ert.” It’s a Yid­dish word that’s very nuanced, with no Eng­lish equiv­a­lent. In the last sec­tion of Bash­ert,” I did use a few pejo­ra­tive Yid­dish labels. But that’s all.

Those dis­cus­sions with Glo­ria chal­lenged me. She nev­er gave me a direc­tive. But she did make me think about and ques­tion my rela­tion­ship to Yid­dish cul­ture — what that rela­tion­ship could mean now that I was no longer flu­ent. So I decid­ed to exper­i­ment writ­ing bilin­gual poet­ry. Etlekhe vert­er oyf mame-loshn / A Few Words in the Moth­er Tongue” was my first attempt. In the years since, I’ve returned to this exper­i­ment using Yid­dish in dif­fer­ent poems and with vary­ing degrees of success.

But I want to empha­size that my bilin­gual­ism dif­fered from Glo­ri­a’s. Yes, non-Span­ish speak­ing read­ers could­n’t under­stand the Span­ish pas­sages. But there were mil­lions of Span­ish speak­ers who could. Yid­dish, on the oth­er hand, was bare­ly known out­side of the Hasidic com­mu­ni­ty (and it had no inter­est in sec­u­lar Yid­dish cul­ture). I knew that many East­ern Euro­pean Jews came from fam­i­lies that used Yid­dish when they did­n’t want chil­dren to under­stand. I could­n’t count on read­ers, even the Jew­ish ones, to under­stand the Yid­dish on their own. Yet I want­ed my read­ers to under­stand all the Yid­dish in my poems. So either through con­text or direct trans­la­tion, I always made any Yid­dish in my prose or poet­ry acces­si­ble to every reader.

Some have even called me a Yid­dish writer — which of course I’m not. But I kind of under­stand it. I think when some­one calls me that, they’re express­ing their own long­ing to be an active par­tic­i­pant in a Yid­dish world that was lost to them.

JRE: You are one of the ear­ly schol­ars to recov­er and trans­late works by Yid­dish female writ­ers. Can you talk about how that work influ­ences this collection?

IK: I don’t know how the research on Yid­dish female writ­ers, intel­lec­tu­als, and activists influ­enced me, only that it did. Prob­a­bly it made me feel clos­er to the world they inhab­it­ed. I nev­er thought I could just jump into that world because I felt lim­it­ed; I’m not tru­ly bilin­gual. But I did feel I could make a con­nec­tion — for myself and for oth­ers — and per­haps serve as a bridge between that world and the present one.

I’m aware that many peo­ple real­ly enjoy my bilin­gual poet­ry. Some have even called me a Yid­dish writer — which of course I’m not. But I kind of under­stand it. I think when some­one calls me that, they’re express­ing their own long­ing to be an active par­tic­i­pant in a Yid­dish world that was lost to them. So when peo­ple read a poem of mine with Yid­dish that they do under­stand, they feel they’re part of that world, too — they’re no longer outsiders.

JRE: Your body of work also con­sists of essays. Can you talk a bit about the dif­fer­ent impuls­es serv­ing your poet­ry and prose?

IK: One of the big sur­pris­es of my life is how com­fort­able I’ve become with prose. At age eight, Eng­lish was my fourth lan­guage. From the start, I had a lot of trou­ble with Eng­lish gram­mar, which still plagued me in grad­u­ate school. In high school, Eng­lish was my worst sub­ject. For the first three years, I was in all hon­ors class­es. But at the end of my third year, they took me out of hon­ors Eng­lish and put me into a reg­u­lar class. That’s how bad I was.

When I became an activist, I felt a need to explain my posi­tions and beliefs and was forced into writ­ing essays. Ini­tial­ly it was extreme­ly hard. Over the years, though, it’s become eas­i­er. Today, it does­n’t feel that problematic.

Con­ceiv­ing of a poem is for me an almost phys­i­cal expe­ri­ence, a tight­ness in my chest that I can ease only by start­ing to write. Here’s an exam­ple. Forty years ago, in 1974, I wrote a poem called about my father.” The last time I saw my father, Michal, I was one-and-a-half, and he was killed a few months lat­er. I nev­er got to know him. about my father” lists eleven facts — every­thing I knew. But in 2017, I dis­cov­ered his school file in the War­saw Poly­tech­nic. Sud­den­ly I had many, many new facts — his place of birth, tran­scripts, and hand­writ­ten notes to the school.

So I incor­po­rat­ed these new find­ings into about my father” and even read the new ver­sion at a Holo­caust memo­r­i­al. But I real­ized as I was read­ing that the text was no longer a poem. It was a list. What moved me to write the poem was my sor­row over how lit­tle I knew. The orig­i­nal poem is about what I knew and what I did­n’t know. So I decid­ed to save the con­tent of this longer list” for an essay or per­haps anoth­er poem. But about my father” had to stay as it was — a poem root­ed in its time, in 1974. And I end­ed up using the 2017 dis­cov­ery in March 1939: War­saw, Poland,” a very dif­fer­ent poem that appears in Her Birth and Lat­er Years.

Julie R. Ensz­er is the author of four poet­ry col­lec­tions, includ­ing Avowed, and the edi­tor of Out­Write: The Speech­es that Shaped LGBTQ Lit­er­ary Cul­ture, Fire-Rimmed Eden: Select­ed Poems by Lynn Loni­di­erThe Com­plete Works of Pat Park­er, and Sis­ter Love: The Let­ters of Audre Lorde and Pat Park­er 1974 – 1989. Ensz­er edits and pub­lish­es Sin­is­ter Wis­dom, a mul­ti­cul­tur­al les­bian lit­er­ary and art jour­nal. You can read more of her work at www​.JulieREn​sz​er​.com.